Ukrainian and Russian Evangelical Baptists: Commonalities and Differences

Ukrainian and Russian Evangelical Baptists: Commonalities and Differences

By Mykhailo Cherenkov, Kiev, 2007

The fundamental tendencies in contemporary religious life – globalization and secularization – are difficult to generalize as having similar or equal influence. It is more accurate to talk about the religious map of the world becoming more complicated on all sides. As a result, prudence calls for a careful examination of the distinctive features of each church, movement, or union; to place them in relation to the general context in order to more clearly see their unique, inimitable, original, local, and culturally authentic features, which cannot be reduced to a general set of characteristics.

The number of common characteristics does not need to be great, otherwise their uniqueness would not be recognized, and there would not be internal growth, independence, or maturity. In addition to ecumenicism the church also has national dimensions and, even, local ones. They focus attention on the affinity of the church to the local context and surrounding society. National and local churches should differ from one another in order to be accepted and relevant in their service to their fellow citizens, countrymen, and individual social groups. In addition, the extent of this difference, the boundary line between commonalities and differences, beyond which the spiritual and cultural ties between churches become torn and local traditions begin to block the unity of the church and the commonality of Christian history, should be recognized.

It is a bit premature to speak of a Ukrainian and Russian Baptist Church because we are still prisoners of Soviet Baptism. It is even more implausible to speak of some kind of «Russian-Ukrainian Baptism.» Such titles cloud and oversimplify reality, concealing the unique qualities of each. The construct «Russian-Ukrainian Baptism» is completely speculative and cannot be achieved in an environment of independent national states. Once common historical paths have gone their separate ways. It is not as important today to search for structural unity as it is to find the spiritual principles that can serve as the foundation for the recreation of spiritual unity, while crossing confessional and political boundaries.

If diversity is understood as a fundamental principle and value of relations among churches, then commonalities and differences in the lives of Ukrainian and Russian Baptism will find their natural and unproblematic balance. The difficulty comes from the unwillingness of church leaders to fit dissent, dissimilarity, and innovation into their already formed and, even, canonized understandings. Below are several theses that contain a comparison of Ukrainian and Russian Baptist churches.

A common problem for post-Soviet churches is their location on the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. Therefore it is possible to view them as one community of Protestants within the Orthodox culture. It can be argued that post-Soviet countries are not «canonical territory» but «missionary territory.» This, however, does not remove the tension in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Unlike Western Protestants, who won their independence from the Catholics during the 14th century Reformation, Ukrainian and Russian Baptists still face the challenge of the non-acceptance of their churches where Orthodox influence enjoys, for all practical purposes, a geographic monopoly. Additionally, the situations in each country differ, as do the possibilities. I do not see any precedent in Russia of a worthy dialogue between the Protestants and the Orthodox. The position of several thinkers in the Evangelical church — I. Podbevezskiy, A. Zaichenko, V. Bachinin — does not reflect the overall mood of believers. The stance of Russian Evangelical Baptist leader Yurii Sipko is always substantive and clearly formulated. But, it is neither understood nor accepted by even his closest confidants. Therefore, in reality we only see group photographs of pastors with the Orthodox Metropolitan. Let me emphasize, a strong position manifests itself not in the preservation of a bad peace at the cost of compromises and ingratiation, but in the consideration and solution of problems, the expression of an independent position, and the decisive defense of the freedom of churches.

Unfortunately, the situation in the Ukraine is similar. There is no one to conduct a Protestant-Orthodox dialogue. Representatives of the Christian intelligentsia — theologians, professors, lawyers, journalists — have not been welcomed by the current leadership. Several consultative groups, which include the heads of various confessions and leaders in high government positions, are working in the Ukraine. But, as one leader of the largest evangelical union has stated, «We are not participating in these groups, because they are not effective. And, we have no one to send.» With the exception of V. Antonyuk, secretary of the Council of Baptist Churches, there are no other leaders within the Baptist church who could understand the essence of the problem and present a possible plan for the development of intra-church and church-state relations. Here, however, something else is coming to the rescue, the disunity within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Congregations under the jurisdiction of different patriarchs are compelled to reject their claims on a monopoly and learn to peacefully coexist with one another, and, also, with Catholics and Protestants. On the contrary, the strengthening of centripetal processes in the religious life of the Ukraine is limiting the freedom and possibilities of Baptists, putting them outside of the limits of the «historic church,» of «traditional confessions,» something that anti-sectarians and representatives of objectionable Orthodox brotherhoods have been trying to achieve for a long time. By inertia, relations with the dominant churches and state, which is actively supporting them, are not begin resolved. However, the historical experience of intra-Christian dialogues, the pluralistic model, a higher level of tolerance to Protestants, clearly and positively distinguishes Ukraine from Russia and could serve as instructive precedents.

Another common problem for post-Soviet Protestants is the lack of a formulated social doctrine, of a developed sense of social responsibility. As a whole, Ukrainian Baptists are characterized by a more proactive social position that is founded on respect of individuality and ancient democratic traditions. This, however, is leveled by the negative tradition of nepotism, localism, and narrow-minded individualism – «It’s not my problem, I don’t know anything about it.» That is, democratize is often locked within the boundaries of the family, clan, and community and does not translate into responsibility for one’s country or nation.

Characteristic of the Russian cultural code and social consciousness is the tenant of an ecumenical mission, a special role with world-wide scope. In the religious sphere this corresponds to the messianic doctrine. Diverse thinkers like the Orthodox Fedor Dostoevskii and the Evangelical Christian V. Martsinkovskii with equal fervor believed in the messianic calling of Russian churches. In Ukraine the reigning tenants are the local, the village, and the individual. Each of these programs has its positive and negative characteristics. For Russia, with its population of 150 million, the 70 thousand-member Baptist Union appears to be too small and weak and, therefore, incapable of being overly ambitious. For Ukraine, with its population of 46 million, the 130 thousand-member Baptist Union is too large to be so non-ambitious and so purposefully losing authority in society. Russian Baptists are striving to become a large union in order to realize their broad vision (which exists, at least, within the leadership of the Russian Baptist Union and, more recently, has been formulated in the document «Vision and Strategies»). Ukrainian Baptists had already become a large union. But, it turns out that they had neither a vision nor a strategy, nor even short-term goals. Evidently, an enormous construction project built with small hands and an overly large collective farm are equally absurd. In a more reserved analogy, Ukrainian Baptism remains unjustifiably provincial and Russian Baptism remains unjustifiably messianistic.

Despite all of this, Ukrainian Baptism is much closer to Europe and its spiritual and cultural landscape. Perhaps this is the source of the provincialism, as Ukraine is a province within Europe while Russia is indeed an independent world. For Ukrainian Baptists, Europe became a reference point of development, although they reject secularism and liberal theology to the same degree as their Russian brothers. Ukrainian society and its churches consciously choose a path of modernization. Russian churches remain more traditional and patriarchal. This manifests itself in the anti-European, traditionalist mindset of all Russians and, also, in the Eurasian orientation of the Russian state. Orthodox culture, which values the past, hierarchy and stability more than possibilities, risk and reform, also has an influence on Russian Baptism. Geography is already determining the distancing of Russian Baptism from Europe. Eurasia is becoming just as important a symbol for Russians as Europe and the West are for Ukrainians.

Contact with their European brothers and a link to the history and theology of the Reformation is critically important for Ukrainian churches. Russian churches, it seems, feel a greater influence from Orthodox sources than from contact with the global family of Protestants. Metropolitan Illarion said, that «Faith comes from God and not from the Greeks.» According to the priest Avvakum, «Moscow books are more correct than Greek.» It is strange that similar phrases are also being adopted by several leaders of Russian Baptism. Claims of exclusivity and self-sufficiency have never been justified. For the church, continuity, memory, and knowledge of how God has spoken throughout the history of the church are important. Therefore, if the link to European Protestantism is broken, Orthodox tradition will come to take the place of Reformation theology. I believe that Ukrainian, and certainly Russian, Baptists need to more earnestly study the history of the church and the theology of the Reformation. In other words, when the influence of the Reformation weakens, the influence of traditionalism, isolationism, and anti-reformism begins to dominate. For Protestants reform is more important than tradition, because reform represents the continuation of yesterday’s traditions in today’s context. Reform is a means of preserving traditions, the necessary condition for their continuation. Without the experience of theological debate, without contact with Western schools of theology it is impossible to establish a domestically-based theology on the basis of which could stand the whole of Protestantism in Russia.

Russian believers, to a greater degree than Ukrainian believers, are holding their own. The lack of independence of Ukrainian Baptism and the emphasized self-sufficiency of Russian Baptism is obvious. This lack of independence is linked to the notorious multi-vector outlook of the Ukrainian church – «both for us and for them.» It also signifies openness to other experiences, other traditions, and other forms of church life. Many Ukrainian leaders have already come to the understanding that there is no point in preserving the structural unity of the Union if there is no growth. There will be several unions. There will be healthy competition among Evangelical churches, more progressive and more conservative churches without a unified standard. It is fruitless to hang on to our undeveloped theology, which cannot exist in isolation from world Christianity, without common traditions, without a synthesis of that which is common to all Christians and that which is national.

History has repeatedly united and divided the Ukrainian and Russian churches. Today, however, historical differences are less relevant than contemporary ones, which reflect more about our different natures than our history. Some people are more open to Europe; some see danger in Europe. Some places are use to healthy individualism; some to «eastern conformity.» Some emphasize the value of the individual; some call for collectivism. Some churches are following the path of reform; some see their strength in tradition. It is worthwhile to acknowledge that churches should be different, because people, nations, and cultures are different. However, in order for these differences to become a source of enrichment, and not of conflict, it is necessary to acknowledge diversity as a value, to acknowledge the right of others to follow their own paths, and to acknowledge that the experience of others is valuable. This is a much more relevant task than attempting to prove your exclusiveness and unify all of the diversity of Evangelical Christianity.

Kiev, 2007